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Gambling bill stalls in overnight Senate session

An odd combination of gambling opponents and supporters stalled legislation
early today that would repeal Missouri's unique gamblers' loss limit in an
attempt to generate tax revenues for college scholarships. Missouri law
currently prohibits casino patrons from buying more than $500 in
slot-machine tokens or table-game chips every two hours – the nation's only
such betting cap. Senate legislation would remove the loss limit – resulting
in a projected 17 percent revenue increase for casinos – while imposing an
additional 1 percent state tax on the top tier of casino revenues. The bill
also would cap the number of casinos in Missouri. A legislative financial
analysis predicts the bill could generate as much as $113 million annually
in additional state casino taxes, which would fund new college scholarships
for Missouri high school graduates. Senators remained in session until
almost 4 a.m. this morning, finally setting the bill aside after attacks
both from gambling foes opposed to the loss limit repeal and from casino
supporters objecting to a limit on the number of casinos. Disagreement also
emerged over the size of the proposed tax increase on casino income. Senate
Majority Leader Charlie Shields, the bill's sponsor, said he wouldn't bring
the bill back for debate until at least some of the differences could be
resolved through private negotiations. Missourians approved casino gambling
in 1992 for boats along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. That ballot
measure included the $500 loss limit. But casinos – and the Missouri Gaming
Commission that oversees them – have lobbied for years to repeal the loss
limit on grounds it puts Missouri at a competitive disadvantage, especially
with neighboring casino states such as Illinois. Supporters of the repeal
also argue the loss limits have done little to deter problem gamblers.
Adding to the pressure to repeal Missouri's loss limits is a potential
increase in competition from Kansas, where the House recently passed
legislation to expand casino gambling – most notably, in the Kansas City
area. That bill still must make it through the Kansas Senate. Shields, St.
Joseph Republican, is touting the Missouri bill more for its educational
opportunities than its economic competition with out-of-state casinos. The
new Smart Start Scholarships could be used at both public or private
colleges. Their amount would be set by the Department of Higher Education
based on the number of applicants and the total amount of money available.
Shields estimates that each high school graduate could get $2,000 spread
over two years of college.

But others argue that it's not worth reversing the will of voters.

Sen. Chuck Purgason, of Caulfield, said fellow Republicans – many of whom
fought the repeal of loss limits in the past – were following a "path of
stupidity" in now supporting the limits' repeal. He claimed colleagues were
bowing to potential campaign contributions from the casino industry.

"What we're doing here is just reneging on the deal," Purgason said. "What
this is about is raising money for the next election by listening to the
outside interests rather than the people who voted on this at home."

Senators defeated, 23-10, Purgason's amendment that would have referred the
legislation to statewide voters. They also voted down, 21-12, an amendment
that would have raised the 1 percent casino tax increase to 2 percent – on
top of current 20 percent tax on casinos' adjusted gross receipts.

The bill would limit Missouri to 13 casinos, essentially preventing a
further expansion of gambling boats beyond those already in place or being
developed. It also stipulates that any future casino licenses could only be
awarded in the same city or county as where an existing casino closes.

Senators defeated by a 17-11 vote an amendment by Sen. Tim Green, St. Louis
Democrat, that would have set the casino cap at 18 facilities.